Thursday, July 19, 2012


I like Copenhagen very much. It's as if someone took some of the best parts of Ithaca (the environmentalism, the worldliness), and blended them with two scoops of European culture.

The first things I noticed on Monday morning, other than the fact that my jet lag allowed me to note that the sun was up at 4 a.m., were the wide streets and the stately, low buildings. Through Lauren's neighborhood of Fredericksberg, every public building was four of five stories tall, and every street was perpendicular to the streets it crossed. I'm used to Seoul, where a row of three-story apartment buildings will be across the street from a cluster of 40-story behemoths. Lauren pointed out that the identical heights of the buildings, along with the perfect squares in which they're laid out, make the whole affair feel a bit like a maze. But it's a very orderly, neat maze.

The next thing I noticed was the incredible number of bicycles on the road. It seemed to me that there were just as many bikes as cars, but I was a bit off: I have since read that only 36 percent of people in the city commute by bike. Still, that's a lot of bicycles whizzing along an endless stream of bike lanes, and you gotta be careful: a bike coming at you at 15 per doesn't make much noise.
Several blocks of downtown have double-decker bike parking.

As I was buzzed about by an endless stream of healthy Vikings and Valkyries on two wheels, another thought hit me: There sure are a lot of white people here. I'm accustomed to standing out in any crowd, to being taller and rounder and certainly pinker than almost anyone I see, and as such a de facto representative of my ethnic group. Not anymore! Even so, I still tried not to do anything too offensive. I said I tried.

On Monday, Lauren escorted me past the three serene man-made lakes that separate her neighborhood from downtown. I loved the area immediately... so many runners along the gravel paths. So many swans and ducks. So much civilization. I'm not comparing it to Korea now, or rather, I'm comparing it to Korea and America. Maybe it's the expectations I took along with me, but everything in Copenhagen just seemed so clean, so orderly, so civilized.

(Except for all the graffiti. Don't harsh my mellow. And the pork thing I'm going to mention later--FORESHADOWING!)

We strolled along the old pedestrian mall...
...and I bought a couple of books for the plane (Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and The Art of Fielding, for what it's worth--actually, it's worth about 150 kroner--and we relived our old Seoul days by stopping for a coffee overlooking a plaza with a crane-bedecked fountain and a crowd gathered around a juggler. Yeah, not a mime, but still pretty damn European.

Got a photo of the fountain, anyway. The cranes are sticking their necks out, 
but the photo is not in a juggler vein.

Afterward, we walked down to the old sailors' (read: red light) district and hopped on the sightseeing boat. We saw the new opera house and some sailing ships...
and a cruise ship and a war ship. (Yes, the Danes have a navy.)
---and the famous Some Building With a Dome.
The boat pulled up alongside a park and we got a glimpse of the famous Little Mermaid statue. It's the icon of Copenhagen (one guidebook said "It is possibly the most famous statue in the world"-- sorry, Liberty and David and Venus and Winged Victory and Pieta and Colossus of Rhodes and Rocky Balboa) and I have to say: I have never seen a less impressive landmark. It's little, all right, maybe three feet high, and not particularly memorable. I had always read that it guards the harbor, and I'd pictured it out on some romantic windswept promontory facing the sea. Nah, it's just sitting there, alongside the sidewalk, which is about two feet away, well within the placid harbor. We didn't get off the boat to take a good look at it.

But it was a lovely little boat ride. By the time we got back, it was misting little raindrops on us (the only time I got rained on the whole trip), and we hurried back to the apartment. I jet-lagged my way back into bed, because being on a once-in-lifetime trip and staying with a friend you've missed is no reason to stay awake, dammit.

Come dinnertime, I got picked up by a friendly hasher who drove me out to the 'burbs for a run with the Copenhagen Hash House Harriers (a.k.a. the Viking Wankers). I know I write a lot about hashing, but here are two things worth mentioning... wherever I go in the world, if I find a hash, I've found close friends. And the general public has never heard of hashing, but there are well over a thousand kennels (groups) around the world... the Wankers' t-shirt lists the ones that start with "C", and there are 97 of them, from Canberra to Curitiba.

Unlike the hashes in Korea, the Copenhagen H3 has a lot of middle-aged people, and probably half of them are locals. (Ours are 99 percent Westerners, split largely between teachers and military people.) The run itself was brief, but the on-after... a glorious buffet with Tuborg beer, macaroni salad, potato salad, cherry tomatoes, and twice as much stuff that I don't eat. We sang, we talked, we ate, and, quite late, my new friend Calapso accompanied me on the long bus ride past the famous Tivoli Gardens and back home.

The next morning, Lauren had a Danish-language class, so I wandered on my own, past the lakes, into the botanical gardens, around the pedestrian mall, through a huge park, and to the Rose Castle.
 It's on a more human scale than, say, Buckingham Palace.

It doesn't look like so much, but they keep the Danish Crown Jewels down in the basement, and they don't fool around: they don't have guards in scarlet coats and high fur hats that could be holding the Queen's corgis, for all I know; they have guys in fatigues with automatic weapons. (Yeah, the Danes have an army, too.)

Then it was time to meet Lauren. She guided me to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, where I had a delicious though undecipherable veggie sandwich. Then we went to one of the oddest places I've ever been: Christiania. It's an abandoned army base that peace-love-dope hippie freaks just started squatting in back in 1971. They've never been chased out, and they live basically untouched by larger Danish society.

There sure were a lot of people just kind of sitting around in the sunshine. We walked around. It was kind of funky and dilapidated, in a somewhat charming way. I was at school in Ann Arbor when the first Danish hippies turned the army base into Freetown Christiania, and it felt like Ann Arbor in 1971. I liked the place, but at the same time, I felt a bit like an anthropologist; I didn't belong there. Lauren told me not to take any photos--apparently the place, despite its semi-autonomous status, has seen its share of undercover cops, as the residents define "hash" in an entirely different way from my friends, and they don't like strangers with cameras.

When we left Christiania, Lauren asked me if I wanted to see more of the city, but like all the bicycles, I was two-tired. (I'll wait till your laughter subsides. Take your time.) we caught the subway back to Lauren and Carsten's. The whole time I was there, they fed me like a king (or possibly they were fattening me up for slaughter; who can say?) (Fun fact: Danes eat 20 pounds more pig per capita than any other country in the world. Do they know their country is on the ocean?) Lauren and Carsten had fed me handmade waffles with the best jam ever and whipped cream at breakfast; they'd given me bread so rich and tasty that I realized I'd never really had bread before in my life; the night before, Lauren had made homemade pizza, which I'd missed due to the hash. Anyway, now it was time for dinner, and, swear to Thor, I can't remember now what we had. But I remember it was amazing.

Then we nested in for the evening and watched The Dark Knight.

In the morning, I packed my stuff and said my thanks and my goodbyes to Carsten; then Lauren and I hit the subway. I had trouble with the ridiculous ticket machine; it wouldn't take my Korean debit card--this was a problem that bedeviled me on and off throughout the trip--and I couldn't get it to accept my change either. It did spit out a little receipt that said the amount of the fare and THIS IS NOT A TICKET.
(A word about the subway system: it's amazing how old-fashioned the ticketing is. When Lauren renews her monthly pass, not only can she not do it online, she has to go to the same subway station every time. With the vending machine, if you put in enough money, it spits out a multi-trip piece of cardboard that you have to insert into the CHUNKing machine, which CHUNKs a notch in it every time you take a trip. The card is too big to fit in a wallet without getting mutilated. Washington, D.C. had reloadable plastic transit cards when I was there--in 1975.)

Anyway, Lauren had to get to class and I wanted to get to the airport and we figured that conductors hardly ever come by to check tickets and it was only seven or eight stops to the airport... ah, heck, I'll use the THIS IS NOT A TICKET. And Lauren said goodbye and got off at her stop, and...

Immediately thereafter, a Captain Kangaroo-lookin' guy in a uniform came along and asked for my ticket. I played dumb (yes, I claim it was an act) and showed him my THIS IS NOT A TICKET. He looked as stern as he could in his avuncular way--can he be my avuncle if he's younger than I am?--and said, "Come with me." 

On the way up the escalator, he told me I'd have to pay a 700 kroner ($100) fine and said, "It says, THIS IS NOT A TICKET. It's in your language." (Yes, everyone in Denmark speaks English.) I had visions of missing my flight, possibly while dangling from my ankles in the Rose Castle dungeons, but when he tried my debit card in the vending machine and it failed, and I convincingly played Stupid American, he muttered, "German technology", and just let me go with an annotation on my THIS IS NOT A TICKET and said, "If another conductor stops you, tell him to call me."

,,,aaaaand, five minutes later, on the next train, another conductor was coming down the aisle checking tickets, but five feet before he got to me, we reached the next station, where I hopped off, and then caught the third train and skulked my way safely to the lufthavn.

And then it was farvel, Danmark, and hallo, Deutschland.

But that is a story for another time. Soon. Probably.